New Generation Of Successful Entrepreneurs, New Ways Of Giving Back And Monitoring
Introducing Alexandre Mars, a New York City based, French-born serial entrepreneur, and engaged philanthropist who, in 2015, was named one of New York City’s top 20 philanthropists under 40 by the New York Observer.
In our series “Blessings & Curses of Inherited Wealth – The Guide for Inheritors”, we have had the pleasure to investigate inheritance with inheritors, experts and authors,with a variety of stories and experiences. The one topic that comes up very often is philanthropy. A lot of inheritors and first generation wealth creators find it very fulfilling to give back. It helps them find a fuller sense of purpose, and makes them feel part of the community.
As much as philanthropy is a worthwhile, inspiring pursuit, it can have its challenges. Alexandre Mars took upon himself making giving back easier, more efficient, and smarter by employing his skills, talents, and experience acquired in business, entrepreneurship and technology.
Mr. Mars’ Epic Foundation links wealthy young entrepreneurs with charities helping children and young people. Smartphones, apps, virtual reality headsets are the tools used by Epic to jumpstart a wave of innovation in philanthropy; I had the pleasure of attending their gala last year at the French Consulate in New York City. and I learned a lot about how connecting donors with those who benefit from their donations is changing.
Alexander Mars was kind enough to sit down with us and tells us more about his philanthropy.
What was the inspiration for the Epic idea?
I always knew I would use my success for good- it was embedded in me from a young age. Upon selling my fifth startup, I went on a journey to decide how exactly that would be. My wife and I pulled our kids out of school and spent months traveling the world- from Peru to Mongolia, Sydney to Moscow- sitting down with local people, philanthropists, policy makers and NGOs, asking “how does it work in your country, how do you think we can have an impact, what can be different in the near future?”
This period of market research revealed a major gap between charities that need funding and those who want to give: 1) The charitable sector has been slow to adopt technology for the purpose of donor engagement. 2) Non-profits are still communicating with their donors through traditional means (i.e. an annual report). 3) People are confounded by the number of organizations supporting each cause and lack the time, knowledge or trust in their work to contribute.
As an entrepreneur, I was able to identify these gaps and understand how I could use my two decades of skills and experiences to fill them in. Thus, Epic Foundation was born.
Your motto is: “give better, give smarter, give more” – could you elaborate on those three main goals.
Our tag line is aligned with the gaps we’re trying to fill- mainly the lack of knowledge, time and trust people have in their charity. We’re tapping into a wealth of resources available to us through innovation, design thinking, etc. to overcome the barriers people face when they’re giving. We’re allowing them to feel more confident in their donation which in turn makes them want to give more.
How does technology affect philanthropy?
The same way it is affecting every other industry today- it’s driving change. Philanthropy has been shifting for several years. On one hand, the conveniences of technology have allowed everyone to see the perils of the world more easily, so the perception of philanthropy as a hobby for wealthy retirees no longer applies. The narrative that you should wait until you have the wealth or the time to give back is no longer relevant.
On the other hand, technology is facilitating the ways people are getting involved. One obstruction preventing people from giving is the lack of transparency in where their money is going. Technology is able to overcome this. As in the case of Epic, we enable our donors to track their social portfolio online– similar to how you can monitor a stock portfolio – to help people understand how their donation is creating impact.
The younger generation wants to give more, and start giving earlier – what’s your advice for them? How can Epic play a role in their pursuit?
It’s no surprise that, as the nature of philanthropy is changing, so are the types of people who are coming forward to give. The new generation of donors are tech savvy, hungry to get involved and make a powerful impact in the world today. They want to go beyond giving money and become more active in helping the causes they care about.
For this generation, the lines between philanthropy, consumption and work are blurring as young people seek to align different elements of their lives with their values. It’s a powerful movement and young people should recognize this strength. As the generation that will soon dominate the workforce, they can cover some serious ground in urging their employers and elders to get involved.
Epic is advocating for young workers’ involvement in philanthropy by helping businesses integrate ways for them to give to charity. For example, we have advised several entrepreneurs, family offices and even companies, from luxury retailers to blue-collar manufacturing corporations, on how they can institute payroll giving. It’s a simple option added to your paycheck that turns leftover change into impact. That sixty cents at the end of your paycheck may be meaningless to you, but when added to the pool of leftover change from 1,000+ other employees- that’s meaningful.
There are many causes, and many places in need. How do you choose your area of focus? What are they?
All of our organizations support children and youth. This focus acts as an umbrella with four targeted areas of impact directly beneath- rights & protection, health, education and economic empowerment.
Traveling the world with my own children has given me the privilege to meet and live with families around the world. It’s clear to me that the challenges we as parents and citizens are all so worried about, such as climate change, will be faced and fought in full by our children. To solve these big global challenges we have to invest in empowering the next generation of global leadership: our children and youth around the world.
You put a lot of emphasis on monitoring your impact. How do you accomplish it? Why is it so important?
This need has surfaced through the abilities of technology to finally allow us to tackle it in a simple and effective manner. Gone are the days people rely on end-of-the-year paper reports because that’s the only manner of engagement with a nonprofit that existed. If technology allows us to log on and check our investment portfolios, why shouldn’t the same platform exist to check our impact portfolios as well?
Money is money. The desire for consumers to know what their money is buying is no different from donors who want to know where their money is going. This has become even more important as the news of scandals and mismanagement of funds from a small number of NGOs splashed across page 6 have eroded people’s confidence in charities. Our monitoring team ensures that donors receive a true and fair assessment of organizations, enjoy transparency and accountability and significantly mitigate the risk of an underachieving philanthropic strategy.
Lastly, you allow donors to experience their impact? How do you do that? Why do you think it plays such an important role especially with younger donors?
For years, giving was seen as a one-sided action which is why we viewed those who don’t give as “selfish”- it’s an emphasis on the self. You can really see this has started to change with new terms such as “impact investing” or “corporate social responsibility” gaining momentum in recent years. An investment means you get something back, so it’s a clear shift from the previous narrative.
These terms run parallel to the needs of a new generation of donors who desire a two-way conversation around giving. We realized this early on, which is why it’s so heavily embedded into what we do, but we also saw growth in people focusing on new experiences. The younger generation is keen on showing what they’re engaged in. You don’t see their Instagram feeds with 10 pictures of their new sofa. Instead, you see them exploring new places, trying new things, volunteering, etc.
We organize on-site donor visits to some of the 30 (and counting!) organizations we support. There’s power in a simple site visit that can turn curiosity in stopping by the drop-off center from Ali Forney Center (one of our NYC-based organizations helping homeless LGBTQ youth), for example, into suggesting a new activity helping the beneficiaries, or identifying a way to donate your time to the cause you support as well.
For those who cannot physically visit the organizations, we’ve introduced virtual reality (VR) capabilities in a series of VR-based films providing a window into the work of the organizations we work with. People can step into a classroom in East Africa or a children’s hospice in the UK without ever stepping foot out of their living room. It’s pretty powerful stuff! I still get excited waiting for someone’s reaction about 5 seconds after I put a VR headset on them and start the video.
Thank you for taking the time to discuss with us new ways of giving back for the new generation of philanthropists.
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